Jessica Legacy

Words are Alchemy

The great mid-year post of accountability! (Or, what am I doing with my thesis-life.)

In an effort to stave off procrastination, or at least rebrand it as something semi-connected and still productive-ish, I've decided to finally write a post about my thesis. This is also my opportunity to tell anyone who is reading that I INTEND TO HAND IN MY THESIS BEFORE MY 35TH BIRTHDAY! Which means I have until August 14 at 11:59pm to get this baby finished.

So, what exactly am I doing? Inquiring minds, are you out there? Any minds inquiring besides my mom, I mean? Let's do this.

The Bodies in the Almanac: Ontological Gestures in the Medieval Medical Folded Almanac

The medieval medical folded almanac is a predominantly English technology used in the late-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth century. It is oblong in shape, with roughly twelve folios (pages) that are folded in half horizontally and then in three or four vertically in order to make a long, narrow manuscript that fits nicely in the palm. These folios are stitched together at one end into a sturdy tab binding, and the whole thing can be kept in a pouch or strung onto a girdle (belt). 

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Wellcome Library MS 8932.  Shout out to Magic Hands!

Wellcome Library MS 8932.

Shout out to Magic Hands!

The content contained in these folios include what I like to refer to as physician's cheat sheets. Medieval medicine was built upon the foundation of the humours. Essentially, it was believed that the body contained four cardinal fluids, or humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. In order to maintain good health, these humours needed to be in balance. If a person fell ill, it was probably because there was a buildup of excess humour. Some of the treatments included adjusting diet and environment, and bloodletting.

British Library MS Sloane 2435 c. 1285  "I think we're going to need a bigger leech."

British Library MS Sloane 2435 c. 1285

"I think we're going to need a bigger leech."

In order to make sense of the changes in the world and the human body, medieval thinkers looked to the cosmos. It was thought that the planets governed the humours, and the movement of those planets—and in some cases their conjunctions—had a drastic effect on body and health.

Back to the cheat sheet. 

The folded almanac contained calendars that tracked the planetary movements throughout the year. It also included charts of eclipses, tables of planetary information and everyone's favourite diagrams, the zodiac and vein man. 

Wellcome Library MS 8932  Zodiac Man

Wellcome Library MS 8932

Zodiac Man

British Library MS Harley 5311  Vein Man

British Library MS Harley 5311

Vein Man

Along with all the calendars and tables, these two images help the physician to know when, or when not to perform bloodletting in relation to the zodiac cycle, and also where on the body to place an incision or creepy crawly leechy beastie. (Fellas, note that there are two points right there on the dangly bits.)

So what does this have to do with my thesis baby? Glad you asked, mom.

Taking to account that these manuscripts contain material regarding time and space, (calendars and planets), I argue that the folded almanac gestures toward the way medieval physicians engaged with the ontology of the body, which is a fancy term that means to grapple with where and when the body fits into the universe. Since the almanac is filled with content about planetary movements, zodiac cycles, important times in the year, et cetera, the physician effectively carries a vast amount of knowledge about the human body and the universe all folded up neatly in his pocket.

When the physician visits a patient, he takes this almanac out of his pocket or unclips it from his belt. He then unfolds and consults it in order to get a better sense of what is happening inside the ailing body. This unfolding and consulting appears as a ritual performance that situates the body of not only the patient, but also the physician, amongst time and space. 

Not from a folded almanac, but still, cats are always there.  Always .

Not from a folded almanac, but still, cats are always there. Always.

These manuscripts are vastly understudied, but they are beginning to receive more scholarly attention. Over ten years ago now, Hilary Carey put out two very important essays detailing the folded almanac. Peter Murray Jones has also addressed these almanacs in his work on medieval medical miniatures and manuscripts. More recently, J.P Gumfort wrote a book called Bat Books: A Catalogue of Folded Manuscripts Containing Almanacs or Other Texts (Brepols, 2016), and I am grateful to Jennifer Borland and Karen Overbey for allowing me to read their upcoming chapter on almanacs and performance in The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation (Routledge, 2017).

Focusing on ontology has frequently caused me to consider where this thesis fits into time and space. Why am I researching this? One reason is because by examining the way that medieval medicine incorporated bigger picture thinking and adapted technology in order to—quite literally—keep ahold of it, I think this sheds light on how the body was understood to be vulnerable, but also powerfully connected to something larger. That doesn't seem so far removed from the way many of us think today. History shows us where we're going by reminding us where we've been.

So, that's my brief overview of my thesis. If anyone has questions or comments, I'd be happy to discuss. Also, if you see me staring at my screen but not making any progress, please bring coffee...or wine.

You'd Better Move

After the new year I was really excited to jump back into the books and write all the words. I took two delightful weeks off where I did nothing but craft, bake, beer, and eat. Notice that I didn't say drink and eat, because drinking beer is an activity in its own right—I digress. So, January 4 came and went and I wrote a bit here and jotted a bit there, but there was no catching the wave of a recently rested intellectual push.  Eventually after taking an inventory of what was going on in my routine and my environment, I figured it out. 

I hated my office. 

And I didn't know why I hated my office! It's a great room, with these awesome built-in cabinets, and sliding glass doors onto the deck. There's a fantastic closet organizer system. Frankly, between the two of us, my husband and me, I got the far better office space. Yet here I was avoiding it and opting to sit on the couch [*read slouch on the couch, eventually lie on the couch, yes, ok nap on the couch.] 

Recently I was complaining to my mom about how I hate my office and she reminded me that I really love the Coffee Cottage in the next town over. I do love this little cafe. It's an old creamery with multiple little rooms with country chic tables and chairs and real Canadian small town charm. Plus, wifi. When she reminded me of that place, a part of my stomach unclenched, like when you suddenly realize you're clenching your teeth. I really do love working there, and I have been going more often since that conversation. I also love their cinnamon buns, sandwiches, soups, and coffee.

Coffee Cottage, Innisfail. Amazing Cinnamon Buns!

Coffee Cottage, Innisfail. Amazing Cinnamon Buns!


It's good for my productivity, hard on my bank account, straining on my waistline. But most importantly, sometimes I just don't want to shower.  On those grubsmacky days, I want to work from home.

Today I started combing through everyone's favourite therapist, the Internet, in order to find a solution. I was determined to Pinterest or Feng Shui my way out of this problem. Turns out I'm a water element according to the Chinese zodiac and I should stick to blue, black, or grey and avoid yellows, reds, and oranges. Yeah, have you seen my colour palette on here? I'm not really a black and blue girl, unless I've just been to high intensity interval training—am I right, gym novices? Anyone? No? Just me? 

Another thing the Internet told me was that in an office it's important to arrange your desk to face the door. I was facing the wall. Truth be told, it did feel like going to my office was a punishment. Like I was in the time out corner. Today I rotated my desk and rearranged some things and it feels like an entirely different office! After the great Feng Shui-ing of 2017 I happily sat at my desk. I ate dinner in there and had a 2 hour conversation with a cousin I hadn't spoken to in years! 

So, yes, I didn't make progress on the thesis today, but I sat in my office and enjoyed it. Moral? I don't know if there is one, but it did make me think about minds, bodies, and the hard work we do. That feeling of release in my stomach was real. When I remembered the coffee shop it felt like my body was trying to tell me something. It was trying to point the way in a sense. Today when I rearranged my office, I felt comfortable in there.

*Not pictured: Door. **Unintentionally pictured: beer.

*Not pictured: Door. **Unintentionally pictured: beer.

We get so cerebral and analytical and, at times I worry we get rather robotic. I can't explain why it feels better to have my desk arranged so I can see the door. I don't know why the coffee shop makes me feel better than the library, but these things seem to matter. Who am I to criticize them? 

I suppose what I took from this little experience is to remind myself that I am not only my brain. I am also my body. And sometimes my body wants to eat a cinnamon bun and face the door. Listen to your body.

Unclench your stomach, find your Coffee Cottage and look out the office door.

Isolating the problem; or, Isolating: the problem.

Ok, good for you, but just because I'm lonely doesn't mean I'm alone.

Ok, good for you, but just because I'm lonely doesn't mean I'm alone.

It's strange how we can feel lonely in a crowd. When I first moved to Edinburgh to begin my PhD I was lonelier than I've ever felt. Even though I felt strongly that leaving my husband* and family and relocating to Edinburgh to take on this project was the right thing to do, I still felt completely isolated. Even more disheartening, it took me a long time to find my footing in Edinburgh. I didn't have a good support or social circle and I had a very hard time feeling like I knew where I stood in the university and among my peers. Returning to Canada for Christmas that first year, I felt hyper-aware that I was placing vast distances between myself and the people I love. It was shaping up to be a long, rough three years. 

*I didn't actually leave my husband in the way that sounds. I mean I physically left where we lived together and went somewhere else. We will be celebrating our 10th anniversary this summer.

When I returned to Edinburgh after that Christmas break things started to change. I made a few friends, got involved in some departmental committees and programs, and eventually fell into a rhythm. By the time I started my second year in Edinburgh I well and truly belonged. 

Fast forward a few years, and now I'm back in Canada. Part of me now feels homesick wherever I am. When I'm in Edinburgh I miss my home and my husband and family. When I'm in Canada I miss my wonderful Edinburgh peeps and the city—Edinburgh became a real companion and support to me. I love you Auld Reekie! I now feel like I have friends and family stretching across the world and in a sense it's hard to imagine ever being alone.

On the other hand, academia is an isolating business. Now that I'm back at home surrounded by loving family, I'm separated by an ocean and seven time zones from that academic circle in which I thrived. Not only did I excel in Edinburgh, but so did my thesis. 

Just before Christmas I sent my supervisor a completed, albeit bad, draft of my chapter from hell. It nearly killed me. It was a really hard slog to cobble that torturous mess together into some semblance of ideas and formed sentences. I tried talking to my mom and husband about the difficulties I was having with the intricacies of medieval astro-medicine and the aristotelian concepts of time, but unsurprisingly they didn't have much to offer by way of advice. Again, I felt completely isolated and thought from here forth I was facing this thesis monster alone. 

Then I spoke to my dear and wonderful friend Phoebe. A fellow medievalist, she had just successfully defended her PhD and came away pretty much entirely unscathed. She listened to my issues, asked helpful questions, offered some suggestions based on experience and understanding and I was off again with renewed confidence and energy. I couldn't have finished that chapter without her. Phoebe, you're the best!

I'm discovering that in academia or other professional capacities, and frankly just life, we go through phases of isolation and reconnection. Even when others seem to be willing to help pull an oar it's easy to feel as though one is driving into the wind and going nowhere. Then, all it takes is one little whisper, the right words, or the right tone, or the right person at the right time, and suddenly it is as though the sails billow full and momentum grows. 

I guess what I'm trying to get at with this longwinded analogy and flighty metaphor is that sometimes, regardless of circumstances, feeling isolated is inevitable. It doesn't last. Eventually the right person will do the right thing and the shutters will fly open and there will be a crowd milling around as though they were there all along.


Obligatory Blog: Oblogatory

Hey readers! Bloggity blog blog blog! The 2017 Edition.

Is there a word for forward thinking nostalgia? There should be. That sort of fuzzy feeling you get at the beginning of the year when you are already imagining what it will be like to look back with pride at all the things you are only now promising to accomplish. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. The last couple years I've decided I'm no longer going to be painfully sentimental. I'll go easy on myself. I'll forgive myself for inevitably breaking the resolutions that I set with renewed confidence. I won't kid myself anymore. My to-do lists always have some final entry that remains uncrossed.

While I've proven myself capable and achieved some reasonable success in this late-academic-still-a-student life, one aspect still alludes me: good habits. I can't create a good habit to save my life, which, in all honesty, it probably could do eventually. Just once I'd love to complete a 30 day challenge, or repeat something with the frequency that finally becomes a part of me so that if I don't do it one day or week, I'll feel incomplete. Order, routine, reliance. I'd love me some of that. 

So, here I go again. Another early January, another blog. Another new notebook, another list of goals and resolutions. So far so good.